JOHN GALLIANO (1960-) is one of the most influential fashion designers of our time. Born in Gibraltar, he grew up in London and launched his own label before becoming chief designer of France’s haute couture flagship, Christian Dior, in Paris.
John Galliano has created the most spectacular fashion shows of our time. Since his 1984 degree collection, Les Incroyables, which metamorphosed his London art school into a French Revolutionary street scene, he has transported his privileged audiences to more exotic and sartorially blessed places than they could possibly have imagined or experienced.
Whether he chooses to transform the Opéra Garnier in Paris into a party thrown by the Venetian socialite, Marchesa Luisa Casati, or the none-too salubrious platforms of Gare d’Austerlitz into a Moroccan souk – complete with guest appearance from a couture-clad Princess Pocohontas – Galliano never fails to convince. This despite the fact that his references come from a dizzying array of rarely connected times, people and places. But then, John Galliano’s life has been rather richer than most – more often than not, the vivid colour in his shows have been experienced at source first hand.
He was born in Juan Carlos in 1960 in Gibraltar, his father’s homeland. His mother is Spanish and he first went to school in Spain, reaching it via Tangiers. “I think all that – the souks, the markets, woven fabrics, the carpets, the smells, the herbs, the Mediterranean colour, is where my love of textiles comes from,” Galliano has said. In 1966, the family moved to Streatham in South London, where John’s father worked as a plumber. They then moved to Dulwich, which remains the family home to this day. Galliano attended Wilson’s Grammar School for Boys where his academic performance was, by all accounts, unremarkable. The same cannot be said of his appearance. The young John and his sisters, Rosemary and Immacula, were always dressed in immaculately pressed and starched clothes, even for trips to the corner shop.
“I don’t think people here understood where I was coming from,” he said of his early days in South London. “And I certainly didn’t understand where they were coming from. It was quite a shock coming from that sort of family, that sort of colour. My mother brought it with her on the plane. You know, the religious aspect and all that was still with us when we were at home.” It wasn’t until the 16 year-old Galliano moved to City and East London College to study design, that he discovered the arts and people “a bit more like me”. From there, he went on to Central Saint Martins art school and a star was born. “I worked very hard. I was always in the library – sketching endlessly.”
The inspiration for his first collection came from Danton, a National Theatre production on which he worked part-time as a dresser. There were jackets worn upside down and inside out – this was the early 1980s, deconstruction wasn’t yet part of the fashion vernacular – and romantic organdie shirts, accessorised with everything from magnifying glasses, smashed and worn as jewellery to rainbow-coloured ribbons sewn onto the insides of coats. “I was just so into that collection. It completely overtook me. I still love it. I love the romance, you know, charging through cobbled streets in all that amazing organdie. There are a lot of things in that collection that still haunt me.”
Fashion retailer Joan Burstein was so impressed that she immediately gave the window of Browns, her London store, to the fledgling designer. The clothes flew off the rails. Despite the universal acclaim – even hysteria –in the next decade, not one, but two backers pulled out on Galliano. For several seasons, he couldn’t afford to show. In the early 1990s, disillusioned by the difficulties of running a fashion business in Britain, he moved to Paris. There, Anna Wintour, powerful editor-in-chief of American Vogue, took him under her wing and used her influence to secure him a backer (PaineWebber International) and a venue (São Schlumberger’s chicly crumbling mansion).
The invitation was a rusty key. The supermodels of the day – Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell – modelled for friendship rather than their customary five-figure fees. There were only 17 outfits put together at the last minute – all in black. (A few bolts of black fabric was all Galliano could afford.) But what outfits. The show was a monumental success – John Galliano had sealed his reputation as one of the great designers of his time.
One man who clearly understood Galliano’s genius was Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury conglomerate LVMH. By the mid-1990s, Galliano had reinvented the 1930s-line bias-cut dress and made it modern, as well as creating narrow, very feminine tailoring which was the envy of those less gifted. Yet it was still brave of Arnault to decide, in October 1995, to install John Galliano as chief designer of Givenchy. To the French fashion establishment, he seemed like a young upstart. The media was apoplectic and Givenchy hit the headlines. “I really couldn’t tell anyone about it,” recalls Galliano. “Not even my mum and dad. If I told one person, that was it.”
It wasn’t long before more rumours surfaced. Fellow British designer, Alexander McQueen, was to take over at Givenchy, leaving Galliano to move to the much larger and wealthier house – also controlled by Arnault – Christian Dior. Today, John Galliano designs a dozen collections a year. Dior’s flagship boutique in Paris is a veritable superstore where customers queue for everything from couture wedding dresses to shoes, and fragrances: ever-anxious to buy into the image of the house that Galliano has re-created.
This is not surprising because John Galliano is fashion’s great romantic. From his fantastical clothes, to his colourful background, Galliano’s charmed rise to fame reads not unlike a fairy tale. His genius is his ability to communicate this through his clothes. He also has immense ambition. Behind his gentle aesthetic, John Galliano is a powerhouse, a man whose ambition to go down in history as one of fashion’s great is awesome, even intimidating. His long-time creative collaborator Amanda Harlech once described disagreeing with him thus: “I did only once and I can only compare it to being hit by a massive surfing wave. His indifference was absolute.”